Will the real Holy Grail please stand up?
The Holy Grail is one of those historical objects that everyone has likely heard of in one form or another. Many may have first heard of the Holy Grail at church or in their history class at school. Others may have come to know of the grail through a movie like Indiana Jones or Monty Python. Perhaps they may have heard of it from stories growing up like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail. Wherever you first heard of it, it’s safe to say that you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world that has never heard of the Grail and the legends that are associated with it.
If you have not been following along with our series of articles relating to the Grail mysteries, we start off talking about Mary Magdalene’s bones. Relics that might indicate a place to start looking when trying to understand the mystery of the grail. Then we travel north to the English isles and examine the myths around the Holy Grail bloodline that are steeped in Templar legend and the myths of King Arthur’s Knights in our article here.
This leads us to make the distinction between what the Grail has become in myths related to the bloodlines of Jesus, and the physical cup that was present at the moment of the last supper. For the first several centuries of Christianity, the Grail was known to be kept at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The real Holy Grail, or at least the one that was venerated as such since the 4th century, has an interesting story of its own. It was known to have been in Jerusalem and was noted so in various texts until 909AD when it vanishes from history.
It was during this time around 909AD that forces out of Egypt were advancing in areas of the Holy Land on behalf of the Fatimid Caliphate. Warriors expanding their territorial claims, eventually closing in on Jerusalem taking the city and with it, the Holy Grail. We can’t say with absolute certainty that this is the Grail that touched the lips of Christ, but this is in fact the cup that was venerated since the 4th century that went missing and was searched for by early knightly orders.
As history would play out there would be great famines that strained the caliphate during the reign of Al Mustansir. Support during the famine came by way of the Spanish Emir of Denia, Ali Iqbal al-Dawla, who kept up with regular trade and business with Egypt during the period of Moorish Spain. The Emir in Spain had heard of the Grail and requested it in return for the support offered during the famine so that he would be able to give it to King Fernando I of León to gain favor in hopes that his city would be spared in the Reconquista of Spain.
We have a record of this transaction taking place from a document that was kept in Egypt. A text discovered in the Cairo library refers to a writing by Abu-l-Hsan Ali ibn Yusuf ibn al Qifti, a Muslim writer during the period.
The transfer of the Holy Grail back into Christian hands took place in 1054-55.
There apparently was some concern at the time that during transport the Grail might be the target of some sort of pirate attack or that it could somehow fall into enemy hands, so there was said to be a Frankish Bishop that went along with them who was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time. There was also a member of the Bani-l-Aswad family at the head of the expedition who broke a piece of it with a curved dagger thinking it had healing properties he would later be able to use. This piece was kept in the public treasury of Cairo. You can see where the piece was chipped off in the picture above.
The journey ends with the delivery of the chalice to Fernando I, king of León. Fernando I had the collegiate church of San Isidoro built to house the relic. From then on it would be known as the Chalice of Doña Urraca, named after the daughter of Fernando I and infanta of Castile.
The chalice is made of agate-onyx, and the Infanta had it mounted with the gold of her jewels. It consists of two parts. The upper part, in the shape of a cup, is covered with a golden hemispherical bowl, combined with a seal in the shape of a golden crown decorated with precious and semiprecious stones, river pearls, and a cameo in which a face appears. It would be around the time of the arrival of the chalice in León that the literature on the Holy Grail was born and began to expand making this legendary cup the global icon that it is today.